July 16, 2020

Was John F. Kennedy a jelly doughnut?

There are a number of speeches that live long in the annals of history. Martin Luther King’s freedom speech, Winston Churchill’s fight on the beaches speech, Lincoln’s four score speech, and Kennedy’s Berliner speech all come to mind. While at the time all of these speeches were hailed as incredibly profound in hugely important moments in history Kennedy’s speech has been treated slightly differently. Today it is mostly quoted for Kennedy calling himself a doughnut but did Kennedy ever really call himself a doughnut?

John F. Kennedy spoke to the people of West Berlin after the construction of the Berlin wall. He wanted to show support for their cause and vitality in the face of an enemy that lay just beyond the wall. At one moment in the speech as a rallying call, he proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”. His intention was to say that he was a Berliner but many now interpret the sentence as meaning he was a jelly doughnut. At the time the popular name for a jelly doughnut in Europe was a berliner.

However, this is just a myth. When John F. Kennedy uttered the words “Ich bin ein Berliner” it was followed by a huge roar of support from the German crowd. They perfectly understood what he said. The reason they understood him was because of the excellent grammar used, the perfect context he put it in, and the fact that he is clearly not a jelly doughnut.

He said this famous line because he wanted to express how all people who believed in freedom stood with the people of Berlin. He spoke of how in days long ago people who believed in freedom proudly said “I am a citizen of Rome” and he said today that would be the equivalent of saying “I am a citizen of Berlin”. The controversy comes from the way he said it. His use of ‘ein’ suggests that he is not being literal and not saying he is a person from Berlin. Therefore if someone from Berlin said this same sentence they would make it more literal. As he was being figurative he chose to use ein. However, because he was figurative some people took a figurative explanation and said that he must be mistaken and is saying he is a doughnut. In fact, the translation was perfect because he is not a citizen of Berlin and so using the figurative phrasing is ideal.

If anyone does have an issue with the speech it should be that he reused parts of it from a previous speech. He had given a speech in the U.S where he used the same Roman analogy and declared “I am a citizen of the United States”. It appears Kennedy was a little like a rock star arriving in a small town before declaring that it is their favorite place to play. We all know its a lie but it is something we are happy to cheer all the same.

The speech was perfectly understood by everyone in the crowd and mass media at the time. It was only years later when a novel was written as fiction and wrote about the event saying how newspapers drew pictures of Kennedy as a doughnut that the myth started to build but in reality what he said made great sense.

If someone said to you “I am a New Yorker” you would not think oh you are saying you are a magazine? And this is exactly how ridiculous it is to suggest that Kennedy was saying he was a doughnut. Yes, a doughnut does share the same name but thanks to context and an excellent speaker, there is no confusion here at all.